Breathe Easy: Mastering Breathing Exercises for Pain

Breathe Easy: Mastering Breathing Exercises for Pain

Breathing exercises for pain

I get asked all the time in my clinic about breathing exercises for pain relief. Do they actually work? When do you use them? What’s the best method? First and foremost, chronic pain can affect your quality of life, limit your daily activities, and even impact your mental well-being. While there are various pain management techniques available, it’s important to be open to alternative natural methods for dealing with chronic pain. The opioid crisis, with its associated risks of addiction and overdose, has prompted healthcare professionals to increasingly seek safer alternatives.

Research supporting the efficacy of natural remedies, coupled with a holistic approach to health such as techniques from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, has led to the recognition of mind-body practices as effective tools in pain management. Patient preferences for non-pharmacological options, adherence to evidence-based practice, and the adoption of multidisciplinary pain management strategies such as breathing exercises for pain relief have all contributed to this transition. In this blog I’ll explain what chronic pain is. I’ll then detail how a new approach to treating pain through psychological methods has been shown to be highly effective at pain management.

Chronic Pain Overview

Chronic pain is a persistent and often debilitating medical condition. It’s characterized by long-lasting discomfort that extends beyond the typical healing time for an injury or illness, typically persisting for at least three to six months. This type of pain can originate from various sources, including musculoskeletal issues, neuropathic conditions, inflammatory disorders, or other underlying health problems. Common types of chronic pain include neuropathic pain, which results from nerve damage; nociceptive pain, arising from tissue damage or inflammation; and functional pain syndromes like fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome. Chronic pain affects millions of people worldwide, and in the United States, it is estimated that over 50 million adults suffer from chronic pain, according to data from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Pain relief and breathing

Breathing exercises play a crucial role in managing pain and discomfort. Deep breathing techniques, such as nasal diaphragmatic breathing, focus on breathing slowly, engaging the diaphragm muscles, which are responsible for proper breathing. When practiced correctly, slow breathing activates the body’s relaxation response, reducing stress and tension. This response helps lower blood pressure, heart rate, and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, the body’s “rest and digest” system, which promotes relaxation and can aid in pain relief. By activating the parasympathetic system, slow breathing helps relax the body after long periods of stress, providing relief from pain.

Proper breathing techniques can also alleviate symptoms of conditions causing pain. For example, shallow breathing, which uses only the upper chest, can lead to increased muscle tension, contributing to pain or discomfort. On the other hand, diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing or belly button breathing, encourages deep inhalation, expanding the belly, rib cage, and utilizing the diaphragm. As supported by recent research, this type of breathing helps relax the stomach muscles, enhances blood flow, and increases oxygenation throughout the body, which can aid in pain relief.

Breathing exercises for pain, therefore, form an important part of a comprehensive pain relief program, as they not only address the physical aspects of pain but also promote relaxation and a state of calmness, which can positively impact overall well-being.

Role of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in Pain Relief

Power of CBT and conscious breathing

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a therapeutic approach that focuses on addressing the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It has been found effective in providing practical strategies for individuals to cope with chronic pain. One of the key elements of CBT is the integration of breathing exercises as a tool for pain management.

Emerging Science behind CBT and Pain Relief

Emerging research has shown that CBT can lead to significant reductions in pain intensity. Studies suggest that CBT can actually alter brain function related to pain perception, allowing individuals to experience less discomfort. By teaching techniques such as deep breathing, CBT helps rewire the brain’s response to pain, enabling individuals to better manage and cope with their chronic pain. These findings highlight the important role of breathing exercises, particularly diaphragmatic breathing, in pain relief.

Understanding CBT and Its Connection with Breathing

CBT teaches individuals relaxation techniques, including slow breathing exercises. These exercises aid in pain relief and help them enter a relaxed state. By focusing on breathing, individuals learn to activate their parasympathetic nervous system, which counterbalances the body’s sympathetic nervous system response (fight or flight). Slow breathing is a relaxation technique that brings mindfulness to breath, encouraging individuals to be present in the moment and to direct their attention inward. This type of breathing aids in relaxation, relieves stress, and promotes a state of calm, thereby improving pain management.

Diaphragmatic Breathing Overview

Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing or abdominal breathing, is a technique that engages the diaphragm, allowing you to use your lungs more efficiently and reduce the use of chest and shoulder muscles. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and reducing stress hormones. By inhaling deeply through your nose, you can draw air into your lungs, filling your lower lungs first and then moving to the upper chest. Next, exhaling slowly through your mouth while the belly deflates is an essential part of diaphragmatic breathing.

What is the Diaphragm?

The diaphragm is an essential muscle situated under the lungs that is responsible for breathing. It aids in expanding the chest cavity and facilitates full breaths that expand the abdomen by contracting and pulling downward. The diaphragm also plays a critical role in maintaining proper posture, stabilizing the spine, and protecting the organs in the abdominal area. It is essential to keep this muscle healthy through regular exercise and breathing techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing, which can help reduce stress and improve lung function. Dysfunction of the diaphragm can lead to various respiratory problems such as shortness of breath and even asthma.

Why is the Diaphragm Important in Breathing?

The diaphragm plays a vital role in breathing and pain management. By engaging the diaphragm through diaphragmatic breathing, individuals can reduce their reliance on shallow breaths that only engage the upper chest. Proper diaphragmatic breathing allows for a more efficient exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, promoting better lung function and oxygenation of the body.

When it comes to pain management, diaphragmatic breathing can be particularly helpful. Pain often triggers the body’s stress response, causing muscles to tense up and leading to shallow, rapid breathing. By consciously engaging the diaphragm and practicing slow breaths, individuals can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts the stress response and promotes relaxation.

Identifying Triggers for Pain

To maximize the effectiveness of breathing exercises for pain relief, it is imperative to identify the triggers for pain. While every individual’s experience with pain is different, there are some common factors that can cause or exacerbate pain:

Stressors: Emotional stress or tension can exacerbate pain symptoms.

-Arthritis: Joint pain can be triggered by weather changes or increased physical activity.

Headaches: Dehydration, stress, or posture-related discomfort can trigger headaches, leading to pain.

Fatigue: Lack of adequate rest or sleep can amplify pain sensitivity.

By recognizing these triggers, individuals can practice diaphragmatic breathing exercises proactively, helping manage pain before it reaches a more intense level.

Using Breathing Exercises for Pain During Acute Episodes

During acute pain episodes, shallow breathing, characterized by quick, shallow breaths that primarily engage the upper chest, can exacerbate discomfort. By employing deep breathing exercises, like nasal diaphragm breathing, individuals can counteract shallow breaths and promote relaxation. Slow breathing encourages proper oxygenation of the body, facilitates relaxation, and relieves muscle tension, all of which can contribute to pain relief.

Breathing exercises for pain with bobi

bobi is perfectly suited to provide support for anyone seeking to manage pain. bobi guides users to slow their breathing down via tactile guide.  Additionally, bobi incorporates paired muscle relaxation, an evidence-based relaxation technique that is used widely by mental health professionals.  Many people report significant difficulty in maintaining concentration to engage in breathing exercises.  This is especially the case whereby someone is experiencing pain. bobi is highly effective in providing a physical guide towards pain reduction through psychological relaxation strategies.

bobi and paired muscle relaxation


In conclusion, breathing exercises play a significant role in pain relief. These exercises, combined with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), can have a positive impact on managing and reducing pain. The science behind CBT and its connection with breathing is emerging and offers promising results. Diaphragmatic breathing, specifically nasal diaphragm breathing, is a powerful technique that can be practiced regularly with the help of bobi. By identifying triggers for pain and using breathing exercises during pain episodes, individuals can effectively alleviate their discomfort. Incorporating these techniques into your pain management routine can provide you with a natural and holistic approach to finding relief. Remember to consult a healthcare professional for personalized advice. Get your bobi here

bobi box side on view


  1. Do breathing exercises really help in pain relief?

Yes, breathing exercises, especially diaphragmatic breathing, can significantly aid in pain relief. They activate the body’s relaxation response, reducing stress and tension, which can alleviate pain.

  1. What is chronic pain and how common is it?

Chronic pain is a persistent condition characterized by discomfort lasting beyond the typical healing time for an injury or illness, often more than three to six months. It affects millions worldwide, with over 50 million adults suffering from it in the United States alone.

  1. How do breathing exercises work for pain relief?

Breathing exercises like nasal diaphragmatic breathing engage the diaphragm and promote slow, deep breathing. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to relaxation, reduced muscle tension, and improved blood flow and oxygenation, all of which can help in pain relief.

  1. What is the role of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in pain relief?

CBT focuses on the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and includes techniques like deep breathing to help manage chronic pain. It can alter brain function related to pain perception, enabling better pain management.

  1. Can breathing exercises be used during acute pain episodes?

Yes, during acute pain episodes, deep breathing exercises can counteract shallow, rapid breathing, promote relaxation, and alleviate discomfort.

  1. What is diaphragmatic breathing and why is it important?

Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, involves deep inhalation using the diaphragm rather than shallow chest breathing. It’s important for efficient oxygen exchange, reducing stress hormones, and activating the parasympathetic nervous system for relaxation and pain relief.

  1. What are some common triggers for pain that can be managed through breathing exercises?

Common pain triggers include stress, arthritis, headaches, and fatigue. Recognizing these triggers can help in proactively managing pain through breathing exercises.

  1. What is bobi and how does it help in pain management?

bobi is a tool that guides users in slowing down their breathing and incorporates paired muscle relaxation techniques. It’s particularly useful for maintaining concentration during breathing exercises, especially for those experiencing pain.

  1. Are there any risks associated with breathing exercises for pain relief?

Breathing exercises are generally safe, but it’s always recommended to consult with a healthcare professional, especially if you have underlying health conditions or are experiencing severe pain.

  1. How often should one practice breathing exercises for effective pain management?

The frequency can vary depending on individual needs and the advice of a healthcare professional. Regular practice, however, is often recommended for the best results.


  1. Rikard SM, Strahan AE, Schmit KM, Guy GP Jr. Chronic Pain Among Adults – United States, 2019-2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2023 Apr 14;72(15):379-385. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm7215a1. PMID: 37053114; PMCID: PMC10121254. Available at: link.
  2. Russo MA, Santarelli DM, O’Rourke D. The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe (Sheff). 2017 Dec; 13(4): 298–309. doi: 10.1183/20734735.009817. PMC5709795. Available at: link.
  3. Harvard Health Publishing. Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response. Harvard Health. Available at: link
  4. Nakao M, Shirotsuki K, Sugaya N. Cognitive–behavioral therapy for management of mental health and stress-related disorders: Recent advances in techniques and technologies. BioPsychoSocial Med. 2021;15:16. doi: 10.1186/s13030-021-00219-w. Available at: link.

Written by Damien Thomas BA(Psych); GradDipPsych; MPsych(Org), MAPS

Mr. Damien Thomas completed his Master in Organisational Psychology at Macquarie University, Sydney. He has over 20 years’ experience as a psychologist and has specialised in the field of adolescent psychology. Damien also worked within the field of national security, including counter terrorism operations, and war crimes investigations. Through his previous work he has featured in numerous international media publications including: The Australian, The Globe and Mail, New York Times, and BBC (radio).

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